Civilis – The Greatest General You’ve Likely Never Heard Of

Long ago in an ancient empire a subjugated people enjoys privileged status. This people had once belonged to another kingdom, but dissension caused them to successfully rebel, setting up their own on a large island in a broad and deep river. Fearing those whom they once considered they brothers, they allied with an even more powerful but distant empire exchanging the military service of their sons for protection. The greater empire so valued this exchange that it exempted the people from taxes. The subjugated people were known as the Batavians living in what would one day be known as the Netherlands. The greater empire, Rome.

The Batavian soldiers came with a fearsome reputation and the Romans deployed them widely. They sent them against the Britains after they showed incredible discipline and ferocity against the barbarian Germans. Unusually for vassal troops the Romans allowed Batavians to command their own troops, but the best Roman generals from the foundation of the Republic all the way through Caesar always valued results more than precedence, and one of these Batavian commanders shone above all others. His name was Julius Civilis and it was claimed he was of royal blood.

One of the Roman generals who commanded him saw Civilis as a threat. He had him arrested on made up charges of treason and sent to Rome in chains to Emperor Nero where he was to be strangled, burned alive or otherwise meet a gruesome end for the emperor’s entertainment. It was 69AD and Rome was a hotbed of intrigue. By the time the year was out Rome would have 4 emperors. When Civilis arrived in chains Nero had committed suicide and his successor showed no interest in this noble from a tiny vassal at the edge of the empire and had him freed.

Civilis wasn’t safe though. Supporting the right guy at the wrong time just as easily get you killed as backing the wrong guy at the right time in Rome, and the succession of emperors pretty much guaranteed that everyone was going to be on the wrong side of the guy in power at one time or another. During this time Civilis learned to truly hate Rome and began planning his rebellion. But he had to survive and did so by professing his support for Vespasian, a general who ended the chaos that year and took firm control of Rome.

But not the Empire. Civilis made his way back to his homeland and under the guise of his outward support of Vespasian convinced his people to rearm and rebel against Rome. It was an easy task. Roman commanders had taken to conscripting old men and young boys, becoming wealthy from the bribes given from their families for their release. The handsomest young men were targeted for what the historian Tacitus calls “immoral purposes.” Civilis summoned the chiefs and nobles to a sacred grove and laid the foundation of the rebellion. Tacitus writes that Civilis spoke, “We are no longer treated … like allies, but as menials and slaves… Now conscription is upon us: children are to be torn from their parents, brother from brother, never probably to be seen again. And yet the fortunes of Rome were never more depressed…  There is nothing to fear from legions that exist only on paper… We have infantry and cavalry: the Germans are our kinsmen: the Gauls share our ambition. Even the Romans will be grateful if we go to war. If we fail, we can claim credit for supporting Vespasian: if we succeed, there will be no one to call us to account.”

Civilis struck the Roman legions on the Rhine, forcing them out of Germany and capturing their ships. Using their own advanced military tactics against them, Civilis defeated two legions. Seeing one of their own leading a rebellion against their masters, Batavian members abandoned their posts and switched sides in the middle of the battle.

His success spread throughout Gaul and Germany, and both peoples proclaimed him their champion for liberty, flooding his army with recruits. Nevertheless Civilis made his growing army swear allegiance to Vespasian. He even sent envoys to the Roman legions he defeated asking them to join him and do the same. They refused, saying “they never followed the advice either of a traitor or of an enemy.” Nonetheless inspired by his success the province of Gaul revolted. Vespasian sent several cohorts of Batavians to capture Civilis, but instead they joined him. Two commanders of the Gallic auxiliaries convinced Roman forces occupying Gaul to revolt and join Civilis. Gaul, which had enjoyed independence until the late 2nd century and which was only crushed by Julius Caesar 100 years before, was on the verge of throwing off the Roman yoke and becoming free again.

But as so often happens with disparate groups who are only united by opposition to an occupying force, initial success breeds squabbling which ultimately leads to failure. Vespasian appointed Quintis Petillius Cerialis, a distant relative and like Vespasian an able general. Cerialis had helped crush the rebellion in Britain by the Iceni queen Boudica, and was experienced at handling rebelling natives. He immediately began to follow Cerialis and attacked him when victory was assured, avoiding conflict when it wasn’t. He also sent messages to the various tribes and rebel military leaders, promising them no consequences for their rebellion if they swear allegiance to Rome, offering financial incentives where they were appreciated, or attacking their forces instead. One by one the tribal chieftains and rebellious generals fell into line and swore allegiance to Rome.

With the rebellion collapsing and Civilis tired of fighting, he requested a meeting with Cerialis. They met on a broken down bridge over the river Nabalia, an ancient river in the Netherlands that no longer exists. For the Roman writers such as Tacitus rhetoric was a means of achieving drama, so it’s no surprise that the historian has Civilis confronting his nemesis with a speech. Civilis notes his hatred of Emperor Vespasian’s predecessor Vitellius stating “He began the quarrel, I fostered it. Towards Vespasian I have from the beginning shown respect.” He continues, claiming that his initial actions helped Vespasian by preventing the Roman legions in Germany from marching on Rome in the early days of his rule just as other generals in other regions of the empire maintained the peace. “I raised the standard in Germania, as did Mucianus [Vespasian’s ally] in Syria, Aponius in Moesia, Flavianus [Vespasian’s brother] in Pannonia…”

Tacitus’s histories cut off mid-sentence and at that moment Civilis disappears from history. It’s a disappointment not just for the abrupt end of Tacitus’s work. His writing style is quite modern in many respects, especially when communicated through a modern translator. But more importantly what happened to Civilis? Did Cerialis take him prisoner or did he let him go back to his homeland? Without the discovery of more Tacitus we will likely never know.

Civilis Meets Cerialis
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